Here is an interview that every Gears fan has been looking forward to.
Dave Westner came to the Saginaw Gears in the autumn of 1975. He was one of several new, fresh faces on the roster following the team’s unsuccessful run through the Turner Cup finals the previous season. In that first season Dave showed his stuff with 40 goals and 39 assists and every fan knew he was, “a keeper.” Lucky for the Saginaw area, Dave felt the same way as he became one of the Gears who put down roots in the Tri-City area and made it his home. Dave has been nice enough to take the time to answer a metric ton of questions here and share an interview with our readers.
SGDC: Dave, welcome to Saginaw Gears dot com. It is really terrific to interview one of the players who helped take the Saginaw Gears to their first Turner Cup.
DAVE: I think it is very special that after so many years, there is still a buzz in the community about the Saginaw Gears, and through your time and effort those magical days have been brought back into the minds of so many Gears fans.
SGDC: Being a Toronto area native, you must have been exposed to hockey at a young age. Tell us a bit about your road toward college hockey.
DAVE: I started playing at a very young age in Toronto, just about like every hockey kid in Ontario. I started playing in an organization called the Faustina Hockey Club playing out of the Lakeshore Arena in New Toronto. Our organized games were mostly played on Saturdays, so we spent a majority of our time playing outdoor, pickup games at the local park or school. No age limit, no time limit; just kids playing a game they all loved. As I hit my teen years I then moved on to the Dixie Beehives organization where I played Midgets and Junior B for several years. It was here that I received a tremendous opportunity to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
SGDC: What was a Toronto boy doin’ at Cornell?
DAVE: Cornell University had a very widespread network, and actually recruited heavily in the Toronto area. In 1967 we were approached by Bill Doran & Ned Harkness, while I was playing Junior B for the Dixie Beehives. I was offered a scholarship to attend Cornell and my parents and I felt it was a good road to travel. I left Toronto in the fall of 1968, at the age of 17 and enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
SGDC: After a brief trip to the AHL for the Rochester Americans midway in your days of college hockey, your professional career got underway when you played three seasons with the Seattle Totems, that must have been one hell of a change from college hockey and the NCAA rules?
DAVE: My years at Cornell were some of my favorite years. The Big Red won the NCAA Division 1 championship in the 1969-70 season, with an undefeated record of 29-0 – a record that still stands today. I was a sophomore that season and scored a huge goal in the championship game, knotting the score at 3-3, of which we ended up winning 6-4. As the celebration continued on the ice after the game, my mother, with a trusty pair of scissors snipped a piece of the goal net, which I still have today. After losing out in the quarter-finals my junior year, the Big Red returned to the NCAA finals my senior year, losing the championship game to a very talented Boston University team. I was property of the Vancouver Canucks at that time and went to Rochester for 5 games, coached by the colorful Don Cherry. In the summer of 1972, I signed a 3 year contract with the Canucks and was assigned to the Seattle Totems of the WHL.
SGDC: You came to the Saginaw Gears in the beginning of the 1975-76 season, tell us how that came about.
DAVE: In 1975 the Western Hockey League went defunct and my contract with Vancouver had expired. I went to Springfield of the AHL trying to catch on with that team, when I met the very persuasive Don Perry. He immediately offered me a contract to come play for the Gears, and since Springfield would not commit at that time, I chose to come to Saginaw and the IHL.
SGDC: What was your first impression of Saginaw and the Civic Center when you arrived?
DAVE: I must admit that I knew very little of the city of Saginaw at that time – it was quite different from Seattle but reminded me a lot of Ithaca, in that it was blue collar town. The Civic Center was a fairly, new modern facility at that time and it stood out as a fantastic venue.
SGDC: The Gears were coming off of a run to the Turner Cup finals the season before you arrived- so Saginaw was a full-blown hockey town by then. It must have been pretty energizing to play here.
DAVE: The hockey fans in Saginaw were a rabid bunch and definitely loved their hockey. I had been lucky over the years in playing in the cities that I did. The college crowd in Ithaca was unique and the Totems played in a large arena in downtown Seattle with a capacity of 18,000, but not always full. Coming to Saginaw and playing night after night, in a sold out arena was quite stimulating. The Gears faithful was beyond a doubt, the best fans in the IHL – I credit them with at least a goal a game at home. Kudos go out also, to those loyal fans that traveled throughout the league to cheer us on, when we were on the road. They were a welcome site at many away games.
SGDC: The team had some pretty established characters by the time you arrived. I always thought that the bunch of you guys were close friends.
DAVE: We did have some colorful characters on the team and I must say that it was a close knit group of guys, both on and off the ice. We did a lot of things together after practices, whether it was hanging out at Larry’s, hitting the Loft Restaurant or at the bowling alley on the Dixie Hwy. We were also fortunate to keep a core group of guys over the years which helped with the team spirit, and that fact was a huge asset in the success of the Gears teams.
SGDC: Looking at the stat.s, your goal production almost doubled when you came to the Gears- it seems as if things were clickin’ for you on the ice here in Saginaw.
DAVE: Again, I was very fortunate to have a great group of guys that made the transition very comfortable for me. I also had a couple of outstanding line mates in Paul “Crow” Evans and D'Arcy “Twi” Ryan and we basically clicked and stayed together for the entire season. The next couple of seasons I was fortunate to hook up with another pair of great players in Warren “Shooter” Holmes and Scotty Gruel, and we became a very productive, offensive and defensive line.
SGDC: As a player, that 1975-76 season wasn’t first taste of playoff hockey, did you have a bit of a flash-back to the Rochester series or the Cornell championship or were you just so focused that it didn’t matter?
DAVE: No, I really didn’t play in Rochester – I was a young body filling out the bench for 5 games. The playoffs at Cornell more like set the tone for that brand of hockey. Also, once the regular season ended, our payments from our contracts ended. In the playoffs in the IHL, the players were paid a portion of the gate, so the longer you went in the playoffs the more your check would be at the end. The guys banded even closer together so as to help each other out monetarily.
SGDC: The Gears were eliminated from the 75-76 playoffs by Port Huron, who went on to be swept by Dayton in the finals, at that point did you have any thoughts about coming back or going somewhere else or were you simply bound by contract to stay with the Gears?
DAVE: I was not going anywhere else. We had a great group of guys and we felt like we could accomplish something special together. We all wanted our names on the Turner Cup, and we felt like we had a great mix to attain that goal.
SGDC: You were in your mid-20s when you came to Saginaw and rooming with the ever mischievous Dennis Desrosiers- those must have been very fun days for you.
DAVE: When I first came to Saginaw, Rosie and I really didn’t click right away. But midway through the 1976-77 season we started to gel, and when we captured the Turner Cup we were really good friends, and have been ever since. We did live at Rosie’s house but he was only there briefly – he had other arrangements at that time. But to answer your question, we did have some fun times at the “Ranch” – there was around 4-5 guys living there and every day was a new experience. It is amazing that we all survived as well as we did.
SGDC: I have to say that playing professional hockey must have been a fun job to have at that point in your life.
DAVE: Actually it was a blast. Through hockey I have had the opportunity to travel around the country and see a lot of places, meet a lot of different people, that maybe I otherwise would not have. With Cornell, I traveled extensively throughout the northeast, winning the NCAA crown in Lake Placid; with Seattle we played in places like Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. And of course with Saginaw we covered the majority of the Midwest. I have driven several times cross-country from Seattle to Toronto, stopped at Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and have been to the infamous “Wall Drug Store” in South Dakota. My favorite cross-country trip was in the early winter of 1979, driving from Seattle to Saginaw in a 1968 Fiat with my dad, Harry. Winding through the Rockies was an experience but when we hit Chicago, my dad was simply shell shocked. The amount of trucks and traffic was overwhelming, especially in that Fiat.
SGDC: I watched training camp during the 1976-77 pre-season, even to an observer it was appeared that the team seemed to have something special going right from the start- it just felt like this was the team that could really go all the way. Did you have any hint of that?
DAVE: As I mentioned, we had a great nucleus and we felt we had something special that could accomplish a great deal the coming season. We had a very versatile team and could play any type of game that our opponents wanted to; whether it be a speed and finesse style, defensively tight or the popular, rough, physical and tumble game. The “brass” built the team from the goal out – for sure we had the best goalie in the league in Mario Lessard. Our defense was very solid and cagey, as well as very physical and mean. And then we had 3, very balanced forward lines that could score, play good defensively and also throw the weight around. It was a good mix and it culminated in the Turner Cup coming to Saginaw.
SGDC: The Gears stayed either at or near the top of the points race as the year 1977 began and I had the feeling that it would only take one small spark to take the team to the cup- then came “Rock-N-Roll Part II” and the team just became unstoppable. I remember the first time they blasted “the song” over the PA and the look on your face as you stepped onto the ice. It was as if you were thinking “What the hell…?” But a few weeks later, after you guys won the division title you were all in the dressing room singing it.
DAVE: All teams in the league had some kind of music as their persona, but “Rock-N-Roll Part II” became a Saginaw mantra, not only for the players, but it also gave the fans an identity and some serious swagger. There’s no doubt that it was a huge intangible for the Gears and the city rode it for a championship. Who would have thought that a song would help push us over the top. There are teams today, in many sports still playing that infectious song.
SGDC: The team had a rough run in the first round of the 1977 playoffs as Muskegon strung it out to seven games. Then came Kalamazoo and I recall my dad and you talking in Zamboni alley just before game 1 of the Kazoo series. He asked you “What about these guys?” and you shrugged and simply said “Naaa, they’re nothin’.” You were correct too.
DAVE: We did get off to a very sluggish start against Muskegon and had our backs to the wall as we were down 3 games to 1. We were able to collect ourselves and started playing like the team that finished the regular season 1st overall – and we stormed back and won the series 4-3. We now had regained our confidence and took care of a very physical, talented K-Wings team, and ousted them in 5 games, but not before some defining moments. Winning in Kalamazoo in overtime put us up 3 games to 1 – I can still see John Gravel sneaking in from his point position to slam home the game winner from the slot in overtime. Going home with an injured Mario Lessard, we vowed to take care of the Wings in game 5 and not go back to Kalamazoo – with Tommy "Slinky" Mohr between the pipes, we prevailed in a high scoring affair that sent us to the finals.
SGDC: Then came Toledo and the finals- how did you see them as far as the series starting?
DAVE: During the regular season we had done quite well against them so we definitely had a great deal of confidence going into the series. We weren’t cocky – that wasn’t our style – but we knew that if we played like we were capable, we should be in a good position. During the series, the IHL deemed that Toledo was in fact playing with an illegal player, due to a minor technicality. We as players, voted to allow the Goaldiggers to play that player and continue the series.
SGDC: The series went seven games, but it seemed as if the Gears had the most steam all along. Game 7 at the Civic Center was probably one of the greatest nights in the city’s history- can you recall what going into that final game was like?
DAVE: The atmosphere in Saginaw and the Civic Center was quite electric and energizing to all our players. The Civic Center was sold out but there were still lots of people scrambling to get into the game. The Gears organization had the foresight to video-feed the game into the Wendler auditorium, which was quickly packed. There was a lot of tension leading up to the game, but once the puck was dropped we stayed focused on the end result.
SGDC: With 7:09 left in the third period and the Gears ahead by a slim 2-0 lead, you scored the third goal of the game and sealed the victory. That has to be a moment that still look back upon and smile a little bit.
DAVE: By all means, with the crowd going completely bonkers and Gary Glitter pounding through the arena, a huge sigh of relief collectively went through the team. We knew we had accomplished our goal that we had challenged ourselves with back in September.
SGDC: Most of the people who were in the Blueline Club following that championship game don’t remember a lot about that celebration- heck I’m a non-drinker and it’s all a blur to me. What, if anything do you recall about the party?
DAVE: Actually, it was quite a blur to me also as it was quite the mob scene in the Blue Line. But I do remember seeing lots of smiles, high fives and dancing to Gary Glitter. – this was Saginaw’s Turner Cup!!
SGDC: I understand that your dog Reagan had an encounter with the Turner Cup.
DAVE: Oh yeah – after a night of celebrating we were in my home the next morning with the ‘Cup’ and Reagan needed breakfast. I filled the cup up with Reagan’s favorite morsels, sat Reagan up on the couch and let her go at it. It was quite entertaining.
SGDC: Do you still wear your Turner Cup ring?
DAVE: Yes I do – on my pinkie every day. We designed it for the pinkie finger as we were all against a large, gaudy looking ring.
SGDC: Following that Turner Cup season, you had three more highly productive seasons with the Gears. Although your goal production was very good, you level of assists reached the point of being outstanding. I’ve always been of the mind that assists are a reflection of true teamwork, what are your thoughts on that?
DAVE: I agree – I actually think assists are more important than the goal itself and is a true reflection of team success. I have always had the ability to score but feel that assists are truly rewarding. There’s no better feeling than working hard in the corners, getting knocked on your rear and seeing your teammate[s] lighting the red light.
SGDC: You departed the Gears roster following the 1979-80 season, but later showed up in Flint playing a very few games and then moving back to Saginaw with the Generals. What happened there?
DAVE: I actually retired after the 1979-80 season as I was 30 years old and wanted to move on into business. I had an opportunity to buy into a bar business and in the summer of 1980, I purchased a share in the Hamilton St. Pub as acting manager/partner. After 4 years I realized this wasn't really going to work. At that time , Dennis Desrosiers was coaching the Flint Generals and asked if I would come aboard as his assistant coach/radio analyst. After a year there, Dennis convinced the Chardoul's [owners] to move the franchise to Saginaw, which became the Saginaw Generals. I stayed on for another year in that capacity in Saginaw. The reason I showed up in the stats as a player was that occasionally a body was needed to fill in on the bench due to injuries/suspensions, with the promise of little playing time - mostly to serve penalties or take the odd shift.
SGDC: I’d like to talk a bit about amateur hockey in the Saginaw area and your role in it, mostly because I personally did all of my hockey playing in the local amateur ranks there and its expansion in the 1970s was a direct result of the popularity and influence of the Gears. Guys like Norm Bamburger and Jim Probstfeld took the amateur players from the frozen ponds at Hoyt Park to the Civic Center when it opened and then grew it into the Greater Saginaw Amateur Hockey Association (GSAHA) as the Gears came to town. The GSAHA ranks quickly exploded with the growing popularity of the Gears. Then in early 1974 we started playing at what was then the new Bay Side Ice Arena, and what is now the Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena. You became involved in the GSAHA; can you tell us how that came about?
DAVE: After I retired in 1980 and was working in the bar business, I wanted to give back to the sport of hockey and so I got involved coaching a Squirt team [ages 9-10] at the GSAHA. I teamed up with coach Rick Simerson and we had a couple of rewarding years with the Squirt teams. I also got to know Dale Hernden [whose son was on my team], who was the GSAHA president at that time. In the spring of 1986, the GSAHA was going through a transition period with management and Dale approached me about applying for the position. I was offered the job and accepted in May of 1986, and am now starting my 28th year.
SGDC: When professional hockey evaporated in Saginaw following the folding of the Hawks, (it’s hard to count the Lumber Kings, so I won’t,) I had great fear that amateur hockey may fade as well- but it did not. What is your point of view on that?
DAVE: Hockey was actually hitting a hot point in Michigan then, even with the demise of the local franchise, and many kids were getting involved in the sport. On a national level you had the success of the Red Wings and the introduction of the “Mighty Ducks.”
SGDC: Amateur hockey is an important tool in forming the character of the kids who find their sports interests focused there, much like I did. I found that the biggest lesson I learned was that hockey is not about brawling, but rather it is about speed and precision and sticking together as a team- something that I carried forward into my adult life. I cannot imagine how many kids have been influenced in that same way simply by passing through the doors of the Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena, does that same sort of thought strike you as each season begins?
DAVE: There is a lot more to the game of hockey than what goes on the ice. Besides learning to play a team sport these kids are making new friendships, bonding together as a team, learning the values of winning and losing with dignity and the intangible value of sportsmanship.
SGDC: My youngest daughter wants to play hockey, (don’t know where she got that notion from.) As I recall, back in the 1977-76 season when I was playing Jr. B at the Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena, there was one… ONE, all-girl team in the Tri Cities, the “Playmates” and they scheduled games with anyone willing to skate with them. We played them- and that was probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit. A young lady named Kandy Kotcher, (I believe that’s spelled correctly) lined me up and caught me with my head down… WHAM! I tell that story because in those days, girls were not thought of as hockey players, (that was a mistake,) but today, it is very common to find both girls and boys on teams. How much have you noticed an increase in young ladies playing hockey in the amateur ranks?
DAVE: We do have a large number of girls playing in the GSAHA and they are meshing quite nicely with the boys. Girls do mature more quickly than boys and I think this is a big contributor to the success of the girls on these teams. They prefer the competitiveness of playing with boys and only start to drop off as they reach the older age groups due to the physical nature of the game.
SGDC: I recall my first game at “Bay Side” and stepping onto the ice. Today seems a very long way from there, but somehow the Saginaw Bay Ice Arena is much the same- and in many ways that is a good thing. In an area where heavy industry has collapsed and the local economy has been hard hit over and over again, the fact that I can walk into that building and see it still going says much about its management. You have my personal compliment on that Dave.
DAVE: The GSAHA has faced numerous challenges over the years, and many great families and individuals have given much time and effort to sustain the continued success of the Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena.
SGDC: I guess that brings us full circle in this interview Dave. I recall back in the 1974-75 season I was one of those Civic Center ushers in the orange coats, and I not only stood in the arena and watched you play, but I watched the excitement in the crowd that you often caused. I’ve heard it said that for all of the fun that we spectators had during the hockey season, you guys had about 100 times as much fun- you just looked really serious while you were doing it. Dave- thanks for taking the time to be here on Saginaw Gears dot com and thanks for the thrills you gave us back in the day with the Saginaw Gears.
DAVE: Wes, thank you very much for your input and continued support of the tremendous years of the Saginaw Gears. Thanks again to all the loyal fans that supported and helped the players secure two Turner Cup Championships for the hockey hotbed of Saginaw, Michigan.